The Jesse James Connection
When it comes to the famous outlaw Jesse James, plenty of communities claim a little piece of his story. “There used to be a standing joke that they think Jesse and Frank James must have visited every cave in Missouri,” says Lester Turilli, whose family has owned Meramec Caverns since 1933. Turilli’s grandfather, Lester Dill, found Jesse James-related artifacts in Meramec Caverns in 1941. And even before that, Turilli says, local stories placed James in the area.
Meramec Caverns isn’t the only Missouri cave that claims to have ties to Jesse James. The outlaw was also said to hide in Hannibal’s Mark Twain Cave while heading for Independence to form a new gang of outlaws. The cave even bears his name dated Sept. 22, 1879—16 days before his next train robbery. Some historians and Jesse James enthusiasts say the cave connection is overblown or even mythical. But today, his legacy is still talked about at these Missouri tourist attractions.
Born in 1847, James grew up on a Clay County farm where his family supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. After an encounter with Union soldiers, the James brothers joined a guerrilla unit where Jesse learned how to strike and hide. After the war, he began robbing banks, stagecoaches and trains to wide acclaim and terror until he was fatally shot at age 34.
Because of James’ notoriety, another Missouri cave has a more glamorous connection. In 1938, Hollywood descended upon Pineville while shooting the movie, Jesse James. Some filming took place at a private cave about two miles northeast of town along Big Sugar Creek. The movie was an economic boon to McDonald County, says Phyllis Chancellor, president of the McDonald County Historical Society. “Thousands converged on Pineville, Noel and Southwest City during the filming, hoping to see Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Nancy Kelly and Randolph Scott,” she says. Today, Pineville continues to hold an annual Jesse James Festival.